Saturday, April 02, 2011

Do you believe in the death penalty for capital crimes?

The morning following the electrocution of Ted Bundy I made the decision that I could never, ever support the death penalty. I remember laying in bed waking up to a news report that featured the jubilant cries of joy over his death. As monstrously psychopathic as Bundy was the party atmosphere of those outside the prison where he was executed was even more monstrous. In their joy they lost a little of their own humanity. Their grief subsumed them and warped their hearts. They became like the monsters they sought to slay. One man even shouted exuberantly, “He’s dead. Hallelujah he is finally dead.” He was the most insidious of the lot. I was beyond horrified.

I decided then and there that opposing the death penalty was a moral imperative. Even as people have shouted at me, “How would you feel?” I knew that as insane with grief and filled with burning white hot rage as I would be if someone I loved had been murdered by a Bundy, my desire to murder or have the state murder for me the perpetrator would only serve my need for revenge. In lucidity I could clearly see the thin, nearly invisible line drawn in sand between revenge and justice. Capital punishment is murderous lie that disguises vengeance as a clinical and methodical act of justice. I hope that I will never have to experience such loss as I am certain than in my grief my high minded idealism will be discarded. This is all the more reason to abolish the death penalty once and for all.

The death penalty is a moral travesty that no enlightened society can tolerate regardless of how monstrous the person convicted may be. If we are to become a truly just and enlightened society then we must strive to be better individually and collectively than the lowest common denominator among us. Killing someone because they killed someone is a puerile justification that serves our instinct for revenge, but not the noble calling for justice.

As Coretta Scott King has said, “An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by legalized murder.”

That is all capital punishment is - legalized murder. Even worse given the imperfect nature of any justice system and the reality of human error it stands to reason that any state that executes its prisoners will on occasion execute an innocent man or woman. In fact since 1900 there have been at least 24 documented cases were people were innocent for the crime they were executed for. Since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976 over 60 condemned prisoners have been released from death row and in each of these cases they were all wrongfully convicted.

It is better for our humanity and for justice that a hundred criminals go free than one innocent person suffer for a crime they did not commit. Whether we like it or not this is the higher morality that our criminal justice system serves. Hated as they are the defense attorney is a necessary evil in our quest to be a just and enlightened society. One of the many prices we pay for a free and open society is that we can not entirely rid ourselves of our monsters.
In the United States the mentally ill and the mentally retarded can be executed. We also execute juvenile offenders and since 1990 six such executions have taken place. The United States is one of fewer than six nations that executes Juveniles.

It is well known that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent. Countries such as Canada also report declining homicide rates in the years following the abolishing of the death penalty. While correlation does not prove causation it is an interesting finding nonetheless.

The death penalty is not about victim’s rights. I am a firm believer in the necessity of victim advocacy and their right to seek justice. However, murdering someone via the state should not be among those rights. It demeans their humanity; it demeans all of our humanity.


Amnesty International
American Civil Liberties Union
National Coalition Against the Death Penalty

Recommended Reading

Death at Midnight: The Confessions of an Executioner, By Donald A Cabana. Northeastern University Press.

For a kiss I will answer all your questions.

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